Last night in Washington, D.C., more than 150 Wesleyan alumni and parents gathered together to catch up with old friends, reminisce about college days, and hear from this not-so-new president about what’s been happening on campus. Although hopes for a cool June evening had given way to the reality of a scorching heat wave stretching along the East Coast, spirits were high as we looked forward to the relief that thunderstorms would bring.
The Wesleyan folks I spoke with throughout the evening seemed optimistic about how our university has remained a beacon for progressive values in liberal arts education. Of course, people of different political persuasions understand “progressive” in a variety of ways, but there remains a commitment to seeing our university graduate students who would continue to make a positive contribution to public life.
Robert and Elena Allbritton, two Wesleyan alumni who graduated in the early 1990s, hosted the event. Elena is a physician with a D.C. practice, and Robert (a Wes trustee) recently started the web-based political news organization, POLITICO.COM. They have also made the leadership gift to establish the Center for the Study of Public Life, an interdisciplinary effort to better understand national and international issues with the tools of social science and the humanities. The Allbritton Center will enable our students to study issues such as Violence and Public Life, Faith and Politics, or Health Care Economics in a project-based format using a variety of methodological tools. The study of issues in public life should increase our students’ capacity to contribute to its betterment. The new Center will open in the fall of 2009 in the building that many of you know as either Davenport or Scott Labs.
Among our Washington guests last night there was still much discussion of Barack Obama’s participation in Commencement this year. In my conversations with alumni with very different political views, I could see that the senator’s call to public service resonated in important ways. There is a long history of Wesleyan students engaging in public service, from volunteering for the military, to signing on for Teach for America. A great figure in this regard was John Macy ’38, who held a variety of posts in the government and was executive vice-president at Wesleyan from 1958-1961. John returned to Washington when President Kennedy asked him to chair the Civil Service Commission. He would later direct the White House Personnel Office and become president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Countless Wesleyan students heading to Washington received a warm welcome from John, along with counsel on how to develop fulfilling careers in public service. Many are still here in D.C. We plan to honor John Macy as we develop new programs that help students to engage in public life.
As the Allbritton Center takes shape, I imagine that it will navigate between stimulating the scholarly study of complex issues and inspiring students to find ways to turn their studies into practical applications that enhance the public good. As I finish my Washington meetings and head back to Connecticut, I realize that we need both: a deeper understanding of difficult issues, and an active engagement in the public sphere. Wesleyan will enhance understanding and engagement – that certainly is part of what it means to remain “a beacon for progressive values in liberal arts education.”
PS Speaking of public issues, some of you may have seen my review of Philip Gourevitch’s new book on Abu Ghraib. If you missed it, here’s the link: